January 8, 1995

Profound Disillusionment Memoir Explores Not The Horrors Of The Vietnam War But The Changes Of Character It Brought About

Matthew Gilbert The Boston Globe
 

As an adult, Tobias Wolff spoke little of his yearlong tour of Vietnam in 1967-68. A memory as complex as it was charged, Vietnam felt bigger than the narrow constraints of words. Also, Wolff wanted not to fall into the storyteller role, bending his friends’ ears with “back in Vietnam” and “during the Tet Offensive” and “war is hell.” He kept his memories to himself, only sometimes letting them emerge incognito in his books of fiction.

But silence breeds misunderstanding, and so the friends of Tobias Wolff believed the worst, that he was wounded and stricken with tortured images of foxhole massacres bathed in smoky orange haze. Now, however, Wolff has published a memoir of his service in the U.S. military, called “In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War,” that puts an end to the mystery. In 13 chapters, he gives a magnificently measured account of his time in the Mekong Delta advising a Vietnamese battalion - his fears, his survivor’s guilt, his demoralization. Not the highly dramatic catharsis of Vietnam writers like Tim O’Brien or Michael Herr, Wolff’s approach is more circumspect and sly, tucking the farcical elements of Robert Altman’s “MASH” into the routines of an ordinary soldier stationed south of the heavy fighting.

“Good friends of mine, even my family, got the idea I was living with terrible horrors,” says Wolff, whose powdery mustache has strong handlebar inclinations. “It’s ‘Shane’ or Gary Cooper riding into town and not telling you where he’s been, and I never meant to cultivate that. I never meant it as a role, but it began to harden into one by my very silence. So what I’ve done is drag the memories into the light and say, ‘Look, it was bad, it wasn’t that bad, it wasn’t as bad as a great many other people had it over there, I was no hero.’ That is liberating for me to admit.”

As a result, of course, Wolff can now speak of nothing but Vietnam. Fueled by the popularity of his 1989 memoir, “This Boy’s Life,” which became a movie with Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin, “In Pharaoh’s Army” has arrived with great expectations, winning a National Book Award nomination before it even hit the stores. And in many ways, “In Pharaoh’s Army” takes up where “This Boy’s Life” left off, with young Tobias enlisting in the military to escape his broken family’s cycle of failure. This time, however, the menace is not Dwight, Tobias’ cruel stepfather, but the constant image of himself in the sights of the enemy.

Wolff, now 49, says he remembers joining the Army filled with a flush of promise, especially as a boy without a high school diploma. High on visions of military heroism and prestige, he wanted to define himself against his father, a con man whom his brother, Geoffrey Wolff, vividly captured in his own memoir, “The Duke of Deception.”

“When I was growing up, soldiers were looked up to,” he says. “They had just won the greatest war in the history of the world. And they were part of the whole sense of achievement the country had that gave it such optimism in the ‘50s. We see that now as delusional, that there were terrible injustices and divisions in society simmering under this lid of normalcy. But I was deluded.”

Wolff’s enlistment was also a literary move. A fledgling writer, he was after the gritty, capital-E experience glorified in the work of his literary gods: Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, Erich Maria Remarque, James Jones, Ernest Hemingway. “Their military experience appealed to me as somebody who wanted to be a writer,” he says. “It seemed like something I ought to do.”

In “In Pharaoh’s Army,” as the moral drain of Vietnam swallows the romance of war, the book becomes a chronicle of Wolff’s - and America’s - profound disillusionment.

One of the distinctions of “In Pharaoh’s Army” is its focus on the moral and psychological subtleties of living in a war zone. Like Wolff’s finely shaded fiction - the story collections “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” and “Back in the World” and a novella called “The Barracks Thief” - the chapters make very fine but critical points. Shooting and shelling only occasionally enter the picture. In one chapter, Wolff is jumped by Vietnamese villagers who confuse him with another white man. In another chapter he drives through dangerous territory to watch a “Bonanza” Thanksgiving special.

“I was not in these terrible pitched battles … when you get waves of men clashing with each other,” says Wolff. “Which is the conventional portrait of war. Very few American soldiers over there saw that. I think it was estimated that only 10 percent of the soldiers there actually got into that kind of fighting. And then those 10 percent suffered terrible and relentless casualties. I thank God every day I didn’t have to go through that, because it put permanent scars on the people who did. A lot of them have gotten on with their lives, but it’s really heroic that they have.”

For Wolff, one of the worst hardships of living at an outpost in Vietnam was the gnawing sense of threat - the quiet but constant tension: “In writing the book, it came back to me quite forcefully. I’d go out to start the generator at night for the lights, and just leaving the hooch I always felt some (enemy has) got his bead on me right now. I’d be walking across the compound and I always felt like someone was about to shoot me. … I’d lie up at night waiting for it.

“Very decent young men who went over there became holy demons because they were so scared all the time. Anything would set it off. You’d get stripped so thin after a while. If you could bury yourself in the middle of these big American bases, you’d be nearly as safe as you’d be in a city here. But if you were out moving around the countryside, you always felt it could happen at any moment, and you were right, it could.”

During the Tet Offensive, a tireless countrywide attack by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army that began on Jan. 31, 1968, violent destruction happened on a massive scale. Tet is the one detailed account of anarchic violence that finds its way into “In Pharaoh’s Army,” in a chapter called “The Lesson.”

It was the first time Wolff not only witnessed but participated in massacre, blindly hurling explosives all over the town of My Tho.

“There was such an unbelievable weight of violence brought against the Vietnemese people by us out of our terror against Tet,” says Wolff. “We were really scared because they were everywhere. You went to bed one night and everything was as it had been that day. You woke up a few hours later and the whole country seemed to be in Viet Cong hands. And the unmistakable conclusion that you came to, though it wasn’t fair, was, God these people knew this all the time. There’re all against us. So we just lashed out, including at the Vietnamese Army. We just lashed out with everything we had, wherever they were, and we didn’t discriminate.

“That’s why I think of Tet as a lesson. Because after Tet, we had to drop the pretense that we were there out of love for the Vietnamese, to bring them into our civilization, and that it was all for high-minded motives for brotherly love…That did a terrible thing to us, because once we admitted that to ourselves, what was left was a completely cynical military operation designed to secure something that might be in our interest as a bargaining chip in this abstract war against communism. It wasn’t anything to die for…

“And right after Tet, we went to the peace table in Paris. Who wants to be the last soldier killed in that war when they’re already talking about making peace? It make the whole army completely cynical.”

While pieces of Wolff’s extra-military life surface in “In Pharaoh’s Army,” his story has already been detailed in “This Boy’s Life” and partially in “The Duke of Deception.” When he was 5, his mother left his father and took him to Florida to live with her lover. His brother, Geoffrey, remained with his father. When Tobias was 10, his mother fled the lover, fearing violence, and landed in Washington state, where she married a troubled man named Dwight. There, Toby was tormented, until he finagled a boarding-school scholarship, then joined the Army.

Wolff says it was important to give his background a role in “In Pharaoh’s Army.” His father, Duke, shows up as does his brother and a girlfriend named Vera. “I wanted the book not just to be about guys with guns trying to kill other gutys with guns, because that wasn’t really anybody’s story,” he says. “We all came from families, we all had affections that were keeping us going, keeping us also in confusion. I didn’t want this to be just another anonymous war story. It was an event in other events. It was a signal event, it was an important event, but I didn’t want to give it final authority, because in my life it has not had that final authority.”

One of the important events in “In Pharaoh’s Army” comes when Wolff returns from Vietnam, rudderless and angry. He decides to visit his father, newly out of prison, sickly and living in Manhattan Beach, Calif. There he finds a perfect haven to detoxify from war.

When writing the book, however, Wolff almost didn’t include the famous “Duke of Deception.” “I thought, ‘Oh dear, my brother has already written about my father,’” he says. ” But he didn’t write about my father as I experienced him. And so it was for a literary reason almost that I didn’t write about him, and that’s a terrible reason not to write about something.

“In fact, I knew a different man than my brother knew, because he never saw my father after he got out of prison. My father was a changed man then, he was chastened. Not pathetic, but chastened. And he was also very sweet, especially at the end, and he was a good friend to me. It would have been a lie not to include him. It was actually a good thing for me that he was so compromised a person. Because I could be comfortable with him. I felt pretty compromised myself when I got back from Vietnam.”

Wolff says his brother read his manuscript and, except for a few “incidents remembered differently,” he found “it corresponded pretty exactly with his memories.”

Naturally, the art of memoir is stobbornly subjective. The memorist colors everything as he or she shapes it into a narrative. Wolff, who has taught at Syracuse University since 1980, says his memory works in terms of stories.

“That’s how I organize my past,” he says. “Obviously, without my even being aware of it, there’s a tremendous amount of emphasis and editing going on in my mind…So by turning something into a book, you must be in some way altering the reality.

“But I am much more inclined to trust memories as a way of approaching the past than I am conventional histories which pretend to an objectivity they don’t really have. If they really were objective then they’d all be the same because they’re all dealing with the same facts and personalities…With a memoir you know you’re getting a highly personal account.”

Ironically, Wolff says he doesn’t like the public exposure of publishing memoirs. “What I do like is the feeling of writing truthfully. It’s so private to me, writing. In a funny way, writing these things is a way of confronting them at the deepest and most intimate and paradoxically the most private level. Writing for me is how I know things, It’s how I figure things out. It doesn’t feel like I’m doing a public thing. The consequences are public, and that’s when I become aware that I’m uncomfortable with it.”

When he finished “This Boy’s Life,” he says, he was finished with the exposure of memoir. While he calls the movie “good-spirited, well-acted and very powerful,” he says it led people to think he was an abused child. “I always want to say, ‘Read the book. I’m not a poster child for domestic violence.’ That’s not what the book is about, that’s not what my life is about.”

He returned to fiction, but one of the first stories he wrote was set in Vietnam. “When I finished it, I felt I had avoided writing about things I could have written about with greater truth. I thought that it would require personal revelations. So I wrote another more autobiographical piece, and then it just started comng.”

Did writing in “In Pharaoh’e Army” serve to get the war’s sights out of the author’s head, as a Ford Madox Ford passage suggests in the book’s epigraph? “No, of course not,” he says. “In some ways the opposite happened, which is that I really got it into my head. But I got it into my head straighter than it was before. I’m in a better alignment with my memories than I was. I’m in a more honest relationship with them and with myself.”

ILLUSTRATION: One Photo; One Map:Vietnam

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with this story: Book review Dan Webster reviews “In Pharaoh’s Army” on Page 14.

Memories of a war Excerpts from “In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War”:

“We did not die by the hundreds in pitched battles. We died a man at a time, at a pace almost casual. You could sometimes begin to feel safe, and then you caught yourself and looked around, and you saw that of the people you’d known at the beginning of your tour a number were dead or in hospitals. And you did some nervous arithmetic. In my case the odds were not an actuary’s dream, but they could have been worse. A lot worse, in fact. Terrible, in fact.”

“I was glad American troops were kept out (of My Tho). Without even meaning to they would have turned the people into prostitutes, pimps, pedicab drivers, and thieves, and the town itself into a nest of burger stands and laundries. Within months it would have been unrecognizable; such was the power of American dollars and American appetites.”

“This was late ‘66, early ‘67. The news kept getting worse. More troops going over, more getting killed, some of them boys I’d known. I was afraid of the war, but I had never questioned its necessity. Among the soldiers I’d served with that question didn’t even get raised.”

“I was inclined to regard every day I got through alive as a close call. I knew I could be killed at any moment, in any number of ways, randomly in the general mayhem or at the particular wish of the Vietcong who were everywhere around us. I wasn’t hard to keep track of; they must have known my comings and goings. To kill me would have been easy, a piece of cake, and that they hadn’t bothered to do it showed a just appreciation of my importance to the war effort. I was alive because they didn’t consider me worth killing.”

Two sidebars appeared with this story: Book review Dan Webster reviews “In Pharaoh’s Army” on Page 14.

Memories of a war Excerpts from “In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War”:

“We did not die by the hundreds in pitched battles. We died a man at a time, at a pace almost casual. You could sometimes begin to feel safe, and then you caught yourself and looked around, and you saw that of the people you’d known at the beginning of your tour a number were dead or in hospitals. And you did some nervous arithmetic. In my case the odds were not an actuary’s dream, but they could have been worse. A lot worse, in fact. Terrible, in fact.”

“I was glad American troops were kept out (of My Tho). Without even meaning to they would have turned the people into prostitutes, pimps, pedicab drivers, and thieves, and the town itself into a nest of burger stands and laundries. Within months it would have been unrecognizable; such was the power of American dollars and American appetites.”

“This was late ‘66, early ‘67. The news kept getting worse. More troops going over, more getting killed, some of them boys I’d known. I was afraid of the war, but I had never questioned its necessity. Among the soldiers I’d served with that question didn’t even get raised.”

“I was inclined to regard every day I got through alive as a close call. I knew I could be killed at any moment, in any number of ways, randomly in the general mayhem or at the particular wish of the Vietcong who were everywhere around us. I wasn’t hard to keep track of; they must have known my comings and goings. To kill me would have been easy, a piece of cake, and that they hadn’t bothered to do it showed a just appreciation of my importance to the war effort. I was alive because they didn’t consider me worth killing.”


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